Saturday, February 18, 2012

On Your Own Internet (Part One)

I used to hate ebooks.  I also used to hate ipods and cellphones too.  I am, or at least was, one of those people.  I was stubborn about every new form of technology no matter how practical or useful it was.  Surprisingly, given how stubborn I can be, it wasn't the introduction of the internet that challenged my beliefs, but the introduction of internet piracy.

Theft is an often overlooked but highly important aspect of a competitive market.  It is imperative that as prospective buyers we have a choice to steal and battle with our own demons over the justification of doing it.  The misconception is that the theft is rooted in a moral battle over desire and selfishness, as opposed to the human nature of survival and the pursuit of knowledge.  We are programmed to consume resources, and Napster new this fact before the record industry.  It may have been labeled theft on an unimaginable scale but the participants felt no remorse because no one believed it to be theft, but instead a human right to use all available resources to gain knowledge.

Back when we (yes, I very much was downloading music on Napster) were introduced to Napster we were overwhelmed with its accessibility and massive library of music (though it was really just our own libraries being shared with each other).  The main argument at the time was that we were stealing music because we didn't want to pay for it.  That wasn't entirely true.  We "stole"* music because we were excited to have unlimited access to it and couldn't afford to pay for it.  It is important to remember that back then Youtube didn't exist, CDs were $20 (and many of us were too young to have jobs), there was no internet radio, most of the local radio stations were terrible, MTV didn't play music videos, and most of us weren't lucky enough to have a decent record store nearby.  I didn't feel like I really discovered music until I was introduced to Napster.  Had the option to download music at a competitive price** were available I probably would have spent all of my money it.  Unfortunately for the record industry, they were slow to the draw and it finally took Apple, a company outside of the industry, to bring it up to date with iTunes (though iTunes brought a whole new set of conflicts as well).

My point in all of this was that theft was not only an important part in the evolution of the music industry but also the evolution of the listener.  Major labels are now struggling to control their market and younger and younger listeners are discovering music that we ourselves didn't find until well into adulthood.

I am aware that none of this breaking news.  What is confusing now, though, is that so few people feel the same way about books.  Ask someone that doesn't own an eReader what they think about eBooks and they will actually become angry over the subject.  I first thought that this could be related in the same way many music lovers and audiophiles never came around to digital music because it could not replicate the warm sound of vinyl and the experience of handling an actual record, but I think the problem roots deeper.  Books cannot be separated from our ideas of education.  To many, an attack on the physical book is an attack on education itself.  This is shortsighted and a manufactured argument.  Yes, we grew up with books and cannot be separated from that power of nostalgia (analog should always be an alternative) but there is something inherently wrong in immediately opposing something new, without fully understanding its potential.

In this regard, the problem with the music and publishing industries is that they were too stubborn to invest their businesses in the potential of new technology.  In other words, why did Napster happen before iTunes?  We all believe that you can't replace a book.  We love how they feel in our hands.  We love their smell (I most certainly do).  We feel that that is something that cannot be replaced.  But we are also being stubborn.  Many of us love technology too.  We line up outside of stores overnight to be the first to buy it (not me on this one).  We cheer for it.  We are aroused by it (yes, there have been studies and again, not me on this one).  We get jealous.  We judge others over it and have an intense emotional investment in it, proving our desire is ready for the privilege of eBooks, but are our ideas of morality?

Though we may be too unfocused at this point to be effective readers (Who made it this far in the blog post?) we do have a huge opportunity afforded to us in this new technology.  We can control our own publishing, it can be affordable, it can be convenient, and it never has to go out of print.  On the other hand, under these terms, larger companies can also not only control the means of publishing but also control what books you own, even after you buy them.  This complicated and controversial reality was perfectly, and ironically, exemplified when Amazon infamously deleted unlicensed Kindle copies of George Orwell's 1984 from not only their market place, but actual customer's Kindle devices.  This was done with neither the customer's consent or notification***.

The birth of eBooks also presents another moral dilemma for publishers.  Anyone working in publishing would argue that the purpose of a publisher is to distribute literature to as large of an audience as possible.  This is a complicated business with high overhead.  Now, technology has made the overhead considerably cheaper.  Unfortunately, businesses model themselves on growth and not resource preservation.  Currently, eBooks are the same price as printed books, though the cost of publishing is monumentally less.  This contributes to a consumer's consideration toward piracy.  They are human and, after all, programmed for one thing: to gather and process information.  We take it in through our five senses, catalog it in our minds, store it, and use it to help others gather even more information.  It is a primal instinct.  Our nomadic herding didn't stop with agriculture and technology, we just changed the materials and the environment and moved inward.  Under this base instinct, it is human nature to support the idea of a free and open library and now we have the resources for this library model to work online, with unlimited potential, across the entire globe.

This evolution does come with new responsibilities and sacrifice from the publisher.  No one wants their career to become irrelevant.  No one wants to have to fire employees or risk losing comfort in their own lives.  It is a justifiably stressful situation not only economically, but morally as well.  Now, not only are they fighting for the sustainability of their careers but they are also actively fighting against their very own beliefs in the distribution of knowledge to protect those careers.  They are limiting access of eBooks to public libraries, restricting the number of available downloads, and making libraries repurchase the eBooks after a certain number of checkouts.  This is completely counter intuitive to the benefits of the knew technology.  It is primitive view on business and a losing battle for the publishers.  Instead of winning the support of their own audience by opening the electronic versions of their literature and finding new means for revenue they are actively limiting the exposure of their own clients (writers) to preserve exclusivity and manufacture demand.  It is very much a counter-survival business model and with limited interference it will eventually fall apart to be replaced with something that is both more sustainable and more beneficial to the public.

I would have to be an idiot to think that new technology will not one day turn the art world on hits head as well.  On a limited scope it has already begun to happen with the advent of digital photography and online auction databases.  But that will only be the beginning.  Will the birth of 3D printing be able to replace my paintings in 10 years?  Will nanotechnology take care of it instead?  If not then something else will.  Though it is slowly becoming more apparent that I will not find a sustainable career in painting there is a good chance that even if I did I would just lose it to new technology anyway.  Oddly enough, I am not entirely saddened by that prospect.  There is a certain freedom in knowing that one day someone on the other side of the world can enjoy seeing one of my paintings in person, for practically the cost of nothing.  It is important to remain vigilant in supporting possibilities that are clearly beneficial to humanity and not try to exploit them for capital, no matter your own future prospects.  There are always ways to make an honest living.  Because no matter how grim it may look, technology leveled the playing field, and now all of us, with modest resources, have the means to fight with new technology instead of against it.

* I put quotes around "stole" because it is my feeling that knowledge is a basic human right and the cost of a record is not toward the content but just your own investment in its means of production, artist salaries, etc. Napster just eliminated the middle man and was too young of a technology to fully develop an appropriate means to earn revenue for the artists.  More on that in Part Two...
**$5 is competive.  Not $10.  There is very little production overhead to copy an MP3 file.
***  This is quite a scary prospect, not even considering the fact that this control can also be used as a perfect spying machine, gaining access to not only what you know, but how you obtained that knowledge, and what knowledge you may pursue in the future.